Photo courtesy of Goethe-Institut
Artists and writers throughout the ages have depicted the horrors of war in graphic detail in their work. From Wilfred Own’s poems about World War I to Picasso’s painting Guernica on the Spanish Civil war, Erich Maria Remarque’s book All Quiet on the Western Front and Banksy’s images on the Israeli West Bank wall, the creative spirit has been used to depict the violence and chaos wrought on civilians caught in the crossfire as well as on combatants from all sides.
Many Sri Lankan artists such as Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Jagath Weerasinghe and Suntharam Anojan have been staunchly anti-war through their paintings, sculptures and installations.
But despite these and many other portrayals and the cry of never again, the world is once again embroiled in a vicious war of terrible brutality with graphic scenes of mutilated babies, bloodied corpses and shattered homes as opportunistic Western leaders intent on pursuing their own agendas refuse to demand a ceasefire in Gaza despite the genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing going on before their eyes. Israel is in clear breach of international humanitarian law set up to prevent the very acts it is perpetrating on the Palestinian people.
When Otto Dix, a German painter and printmaker, was revealing the depravity of society during the Weimar Republic and the brutality of war in harshly realistic scenes, there were no international humanitarian laws in operation nor were the terrors of war brought into living rooms daily in explicit detail. It was through his prints, lithographs and etchings that Dix showed the harm wrought during war and afterwards as soldiers and civilians faced its repercussions.
Dix’s work will also strike a cord with Sri Lankans who recall the end of the civil war in 2009 where the military has been accused of shelling civilians in no fire zones, bombing hospitals and cutting off food supplies. “Defenceless non-combatants shot or kidnapped, others bombed or left without food, hospitals damaged, fleeing families with nowhere safe to go; although historical circumstances are different, some scenes are grimly familiar,” wrote Savitri Hensman on Groundviews.
Dix was an important artist of the new objectivity movement in German art that arose in the 1920s as a reaction against the self-involvement and romanticism of expressionists. The movement ended in 1933 with the fall of the Weimar Republic and the beginning of the Nazi dictatorship.
The Goethe-Institut has brought a selection of Dix’s original work, including his complete series on war, to Colombo in an exhibition titled Social Criticism and War (1920-1924) showing at the J.D.A. Perera Gallery. It part of a touring exhibition organized during the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that has taken on more significance in light of Israel’s inhumane and illegal war on Gaza and its persecution of Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank.
“It is important for artists and students to see original work and not only see it on screens and in books. The exhibition speaks to everyone; it is not necessary to have an art background to understand what is shown,” said Goethe-Institut Director Stefan Winkler. “Dix himself didn’t speak about his work because the work speaks for itself. He also kept away from political groups.”
It was not an easy exhibition to organize given the value and fragility of the artworks that require a controlled temperature, humidity and light.
During 1914 to 1918, Dix served as a German soldier on the frontline trenches where the suffering experienced by him and his fellow combatants was depicted in the work that took him six years to produce after the end of the war. He sketched in the trenches as bombs and bullets exploded all around. Dix was deeply affected by the sights of the war and described a recurring nightmare in which he crawled through destroyed houses.
Dix’s work showing dead and dying soldiers, dazed civilians and bombed out landscapes is reminiscent of the wholesale destruction of Gaza, with bodies of shrouded babies lying in rows, rotting corpses and mothers clutching bleeding children.
“Dix portrayed not only the horrors of war but also all the special problems that came with the war. Those days there was no diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; people had to find ways to survive. Young men were disabled and not able to work but they tried to survive,” Mr. Winkler said. “While art doesn’t stop wars, it is important that artists document these experiences.”
Dix portrayals of legless and disfigured veterans, a common sight on Berlin’s streets in the 1920s, revealed how they were rejected and shunned by society even as war profiteers enjoyed luxurious lives.
By the late 1920s, the rallying call of Nazism was growing louder. Anti-war art was targeted for destruction and suppression. Called degenerate art, hundreds of pieces were removed from museums, some to be sold abroad and others missing forever, including a Dix’s black and white painting called The Trench of which only a grainy photograph remains. It is estimated that 260 of Dix’s works were confiscated because they were said by the Nazis “to sap the will of the German people to defend themselves.”
When The Trench was exhibited in 1924, its depiction of decomposed corpses in a German trench created such a public outcry that the museum’s director hid the painting behind a curtain. Another critic described it as “perhaps the most powerful as well as well as the most anti-war statements in modern art”.
For his opposition to war, Dix was sacked as professor at the Dresden School of Arts and Crafts. He moved to the countryside in East Germany where he earned a living doing portraits and landscapes to support his young family. In 1945 Dix was forced to join the German Army and at the end of the war was captured by the French Army and was put into a prisoner of war camp. After he was released Dix he continued with print making and colour lithography focusing on portraits and landscapes. He died in 1969 at the age of 77.
Interest in Dix’s work waned as abstract art took over but now it is being constantly rediscovered, according to Mr. Winkler.
© (Otto Dix) VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn